In just a few hours, the billion-dollar stimulus measure intended to help American journalism hold on just a little longer to sweet, precious life — which is sometimes referred to as the 2014 midterm election — will finally reach its nominal conclusion. (Runoffs in either or both Georgia and Louisiana are likely, which means the midterm may not be officially over until as late as January 2015.) And while control of the Senate is still in doubt, you can be sure of one thing: Happening as it is after another wave of GOP-backed voter ID laws has swept across the nation, the 2014 election will likely feature more post-Election Day legal squabbling over vote counts than we've seen since the year 2000.
Looking to find out how civil rights, voting rights and other activist groups were preparing for the inevitable chaos and confusion, Salon recently spoke with Common Cause's director of voting and elections, Allegra Chapman, as well as Greg Moore, the executive director of the NAACP's national voter fund. Along with many others, both Chapman and Moore's respective organizations have joined the Democracy Initiative, a coalition of groups dedicated to preserving and expanding U.S. democracy and fair, legal, open elections. Our conversation is below and has been edited for clarity and length.
So what is the Democracy Initiative? What are you guys doing out there?
Allegra Chapman (AC): We’ve been doing election protection work for years now. It’s a program that we have in ... about 18 different states across the country. Essentially, what we’re out there to do is to provide voters with accurate information as they’re going to the polls.
So, we’ll have poll monitors dispatched to a number of different places — especially ones that maybe are traditionally underserved, places with high concentrations of black and Latino populations — just to ensure that people have the right information, that polls are being conducted appropriately. As individuals are leaving their polling places, we have our monitors talking with them. Our monitors are all wearing these election protection T-shirts or buttons, which show that it’s a nonpartisan effort in order to educate voters and to provide them with the right information, so they’re very easily identifiable out there.
The idea really is to make sure voters know what they need. Especially, now in a number of states where there are these voter ID requirements, we can provide voters with the right information ... Of course, we’re going to be in a number of other states, too, that don’t have photo ID laws in place but where it’s just as crucial to give people the right information and to also ensure that there isn’t any worrisome activity that’s happening at any polling place.
Greg Moore (GM): The important piece of this is that we’re trying to fight for freedom for our elections — all across the country, not just in the states where we’ve had problems, but everywhere. So this on-the-ground citizens’ poll-monitoring program sort of gets to that.
We had a Supreme Court decision last year, Shelby v. Holder, where a big section of the Voting Rights Act, Section 4, was basically gutted. It actually wiped out Sections 4 and 5, in order for us to have a pre-clearance review of many of these statutes that Allegra just referenced. In some points we were able to get these statutes stopped before they were actually implemented, so without Section 5 we are in a situation where these bills are becoming laws, and we’re in a situation where we can’t stop these bills from actually having the damage that they would have in this current election.
The next best thing we can do is to have poll monitors out there looking, observing, following the procedures of what’s happening on Election Day, so that we can basically build a public record of what actually happened in this, the first election since 1966 without the full protections of the Voting Rights Act. So these poll monitors are going to be playing a very key role in helping us document the problems that voters will be experiencing.
AC: The number that we have been putting out there for voters to call if they do have a problem on Election Day is 1-866-OUR-VOTE. There are also two other numbers that provide interpretation services; there’s one in Spanish, and it’s 1-888-VEY-VOTA; and then the third is for Asian languages, and it’s 1-888-API-VOTE.
Now, I understand the work on Election Day — the monitoring, informational assistance and so forth — but when it comes to dealing with these voter ID laws, isn't it the case that, for a lot of people, it's already going to be too late to do anything about it, since getting the proper ID not only requires paying fees but also filling out and processing paperwork?
AC: You’re right on that. The laws are in place right now. As it stands in some place ... there just is going to be that requirement, that people produce photo ID in order to vote ... So when it comes to places like [that], what we and the other members of the coalition have been doing is educating people, from before the early voting period through the early voting period, as to exactly what they need.
This is a problem that we are going to have to continue to work on going forward. It is what it is right now. We know these photo ID laws to be a solution in search of a problem that just doesn’t exist. As Judge Posner argued in a recent dissent, it’s really a fraud being perpetrated by legislators who are trying to manipulate the system to their advantage.
Along those lines, I wanted to ask you how difficult it's been to maintain the nonpartisan nature of your work. Voting shouldn't be a partisan issue but, obviously, it's increasingly becoming one. How do you do the work you do while navigating that shifting political terrain?
GM: It is difficult. I mean, there was once a time when you knew what the laws were every year for voting. The polls opened and closed at a certain time on a certain date, and then you were good to go. What’s happened in recent years is that laws have changed about when you can vote, how soon you can vote … In some ways, [the franchise has] been expanding; but in some other ways, it’s been contracting.
The [ideas] that help expand the electorate seem to be, unfortunately, coming from just one party, Those efforts that have contracted the vote ... those, unfortunately, are coming from one party also. You don’t have to be a very astute political person to see who’s doing what. As it turns out, people who represent low-income people, African-Americans, people of color, Latinos, the elderly poor, young people — these are the people who are impacted by these laws, so there’s not a lot of calculus involved to see that somebody’s trying to make it easier to vote and somebody’s trying to make it harder to vote.
Our job in the civil rights community and in the voting rights community is to make sure people know the difference, know that there’s an effort to save and protect the right to vote ... versus those people who are trying to do the opposite and supporting those efforts to make it a lot harder ... Our job and our challenge is to keep it nonpartisan but also tell the truth and let people know where this is all coming from and who’s trying to stop it.
And what do you tell those who feel passionately about this issue but who themselves will not have trouble voting? I would imagine that, right now, one of the biggest things you're doing is simply pushing back against fatalism, both from the people whose access to the polls is being challenged as well as those who care about voting rights more generally.
AC: That’s a great question, especially for this time. It’s really encouraging when you see grass-roots groups or organizations getting together from the ground up to energize one another and energize their communities. Especially when we see what’s been going on in the Fergusons across the country, where there are so many people who feel as though they’ve been disenfranchised for so long, that those people who are elected in their communities simply don’t represent their interests and don’t look like them, and haven’t for some time.
People need to be able to energize one another, and some of it starts with just encouraging your friends and your family to show up at the polls, to volunteer at a community group, whether it’s a soup kitchen or book clubs or PTA meetings or whatever it is. Because, really, a lot of this stuff happens locally. It happens close to home, and if people are able to get involved at the local level and then see the impact within their community, hopefully that starts to generate a little more buzz, and it keeps people involved, and it keeps the energy and the momentum going.
GM: I spend my weekends these days coordinating canvassing. That’s getting people going to the doors of their neighbors and urging them to vote and having conversations, person-to-person, neighbor-to-neighbor, about the election and the importance of it. That’s one of those things that we encourage people to do.
I think getting involved, volunteering to be a poll monitor — again, calling the 866-OUR-VOTE number — is something that people can do. We’re urging all the people who are members of those organizations [in the Democracy Initiative coalition] to stop and give a few hours of your time to help us observe this election.